Italy targets quick return of football fans to stadiums

It seemed an impossible prospect just a few weeks ago in a country ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, but in Italy the idea of a return of crowds to stadiums is now being floated as the football season prepares to restart.

Since football returned in Europe last month after the virus-imposed shutdown, clubs in Germany and elsewhere have come up with innovative ideas like filling seats with cardboard cutouts of fans. In Denmark supporters watching on Zoom appeared on video screens in stadiums.

However, Hungary last weekend became the first European country to allow supporters to return to grounds, albeit in limited numbers. The only exception on the continent in the last three months has been Belarus, where football never stopped and fans kept attending games.

Bulgaria, Switzerland and others could soon follow suit, but the idea of seeing fans return to stadiums in Italy takes some getting used to.

The country has attributed over 33,000 deaths to COVID-19, one of the highest rates in the world. The football season has been halted since early March and until mid-May teams were not even allowed to train together.

Nevertheless, the season is now preparing to return on the football-mad peninsula. The final stages of the Coppa Italia will be played out next week, before Serie A resumes on June 20.

Early matches will definitely go ahead behind closed doors, but clubs and authorities have expressed a willingness to at least partially open venues to supporters before the season's new end date of August 2.

Italy's sports press has reported that Andrea Agnelli, the highly influential president of Juventus and the powerful European Club Association, was the first to address the subject.

- 'Premature, but...' -

At a meeting of the league last week, Agnelli reportedly said he expects that "the government will authorise a partial reopening of stadiums in July".

Italian football federation president (FIGC) Gabriele Gravina then said in a radio interview on Monday that it was his "heartfelt wish to be able to see a small presence in stadiums for the end of the championship".

"Certainly it is premature today but with the resumption of the championship, there could be a new little signal of hope for our country," continued Gravina.

Clubs like Genoa and Sassuolo have given their backing to the idea.

There are two sides to the argument. On the one hand, the health situation is improving, with no indication yet of a much-feared second wave.

Indeed, cinemas, theatres and theme parks will all be allowed to reopen from June 15, albeit at limited capacity and with strict social distancing rules in place.

"If there are so many things we can do while respecting social distancing, I don't see why we couldn't fill 10 percent of large stadiums," said Cosimo Sibilia, who oversees the country's amateur league.

The clubs themselves hope that figure could be increased to 20 or even 25 percent. Press reports have suggested clubs are hoping to give priority to lucrative VIP seats, while others consider holding draws or a rotation system to allow season-ticket holders to take turns at attending games.

- Some kind of normality -

Certainly, some political figures are now coming round to the idea.

"Reopening stadiums is something we have never ruled out," declared Sandra Zampa, undersecretary at the Ministry of Health, this week.

"Here the forecasts are that infections will be down to zero by the end of June," pointed out Ciro Borriello, a Naples city official. "Why not think about filling one in every four seats in that case?"

Even some key health experts believe that letting spectators back in is not impossible.

"The safety rules, distancing and compulsory wearing of masks, are the same in a stadium as in an opera. And the contingency measures are easier to put in place in a stadium," Maria Rita Gismondo, a virologist at the Sacco hospital in Milan, told the Corriere dello Sport.

Matteo Bassetti, a virologist at Genoa's San Martino hospital, also believes that seeing fans back in the stands would help the country return to some kind of normality.

"We need to start talking about something other than Covid, for example football. We can't only ever talk about ill or dead people," he said.

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